I have spent my holiday perusing the internet for interesting horse info. It's hard to surf properly without running into lots and lots of info on "Natural Horsemanship", the barefoot 'movement', and riding bitless. I may date myself here a bit, but all of this info is new to me and some of it is making for some very interesting reading. I realize that none of this is terribly relevant to my life as it exists currently, but I am a horse person by nature and plan to have horses again as soon as finances permit. I poke around online to stay current and because it's really the only way to get a good horse-fix these days.
Okay, first of all let me make clear that, as a middle-aged woman who has ridden nearly since infancy, I am most familiar (and therefore most comfortable) with a more classical school of thought when it comes to horses. By classical, I mean the slow and steady bringing along of a horse though humane and methodical training, at the speed that makes sense to the individual horse. Of course, the definition and detail are much more complex than my simplified definition, but most people who ride and compete in 'English' sports know what I am talking about (whether they themselves are interested in adhering to classical principles or not). I won't say that I am an expert by any means and have found myself blessed by the help of friends who are much more capable than I, but the point is the same. In my view, correct training has always been humane training that takes the needs and nature of the horse into consideration. I have always been surrounded by people who felt the same. So what of "Natural horsemanship"?
I have never attempted it in practice. I know some folks who swear by it, and I know 'classical' trainers who are frustrated to no end by having to re-train horses who have been ruined by badly-done "Natural Horsemanship". I don't believe any system can be judged by the results of those who f*** it up though, but I guess that goes two ways. I have seen some pretty horrible riders trained in the classical method too (okay, admittedly most of them have been spoiled brats who's mommy and daddy bought them an expensive "toy" that they know nothing about, other than how to ride it around a ring and make it jump) but I know that, done correctly, it's a humane system that works. I think as long as it gets the job done kindly and the results are good, then why not? For some equine-enthusiasts, "Natural Horsemanship" IS the reason they ride. That's cool. I know folks who have a traditional background who incorporate NH to add something new and fun, and they do so with great results. I won't comment on western riding here because I am the first to admit that I know nothing about the western disciplines, but a lot of western folks seem to be really into NH. The one thing that does seem strange to me is that NH folks don't seem to do a ton of riding. I haven't seen a lot of NH folks participating in equestrian sports, at least not that I'm aware of. Is that a 'thing'? Again, I'm no expert.
Next on my confuzzlement list is riding bitless. Even from a traditional perspective, I totally get the appeal here. Less is more in the horse world (or more accurately, more training and skill means less need for gadgets), and it has always broken my heart to see a heavily bitted horse with his head tied down and his mouth gaping open. Even in the dressage ring, it is not uncommon to see an absolutely ridiculous amount of contact coupled with a tight noseband. In fact, both of those things make me NUTS and ruin my experience as a spectator. I would love to see riders in both the aforementioned camps lose their bit-privileges until they learn to ride with some compassion. I especially hate to see upper-level riders hammering on a double bridle. By the time you reach that level, you should know better. I rode saddleseat as a child. A CHILD. My horse wore a very potentially-severe double bridle, but instead of the crank-nosebands used by some of today's dressage riders, all we had were thin, decorative, pinned-ring cavessons. Even so, you never saw one of our horses with a blue tongue or a gaping mouth. I miss having the balance and finesse I used to have. I'll freely admit here that I am no longer a pretty rider. I am old and lumpy and waaaay out of shape. Just wanted to put that out there :-) Even so, I can work hard to be a good rider again when the opportunity presents itself, which is sort of the point. A bitless-bridle is something I could get behind. I spent some time checking out this site: The Bitless Bridle Once I got past the very-strongly anti-bit stuff and the occasionally obnoxious marketing, I found that I really liked Dr. Cook and understood why riding bitless could be a good thing.
It certainly made sense to me that a horse would prefer not to have something in his mouth, especially if that something is attached to an unsympathetic pair of hands that treats it like an emergency brake or something to balance on. I tried to find folks who are sport-oriented who utilize bitless bridles, and there are a few of them. Perhaps my favorite is here: Uta Graf/Le Noir, bitless dressage Oh Uta, if only you were wearing a helmet! Oh well, She is still awesome. There seems to be a lot more folks out there using them on very old, or pet horses though. Lots of pics of helmetless people hugging ancient horses who are half asleep. There is merit here and I don't wish to discount anyone who has and loves their horse and wants to provide them with a positive experience. I just think that it would be nice if these bridles were more commonplace among sport-people (specifically the above-mentioned "brats"). It's certainly something I would consider, though they aren't allowed in dressage competition. Even so, I would imagine that much discomfort could be prevented in training if a bitless bridle were used most often. Something to ponder...
Perhaps the most intriguing thing I've discovered is the idea of keeping a horse barefoot. I can't even begin to post links to all the info out there about barefoot hoofs and all the schools of thought around this type of horse management, but I will admit the scientific information is certainly compelling. If your experience is primarily with sport horses (with the exception of endurance) the idea might be crazy-foreign. But check out this perspective from world-class dressage-folks: Barefoot Dressage with Shannon Peters This is something worth a try too, under the right conditions. I probably would always feel safer sending my daughter out on a cross-country course knowing there are studs in her horse's shoes, but for dressage? There are pretty terrific hoof-boots out there too. Again, not allowed in the dressage ring (the thing I love about dressage is also the thing I dislike about it: it's so darned fussy!) but one could always do what the Peters did, or opt to use a glue-on shoe for competition until the horse is reliably comfortable on all surfaces. I think I will always be the most comfortable with a farrier who also does barefoot trims as opposed to someone who is trained specifically as a trimmer because I have so much respect for the farrier-trade and faith in experience. I have noticed that many farriers here in Vermont actually do both. That is cool!
I would encourage horse people to maybe not just stick to the status quo. By all means, adhere to your principals, but at least consider exploring some of the new stuff that's out there that can actually function to enhance the old stuff you already know about. I'm am trying very hard to keep an open mind. If you know me, you know how tough that can be. I am also not entirely sold on the idea of "natural" anything that involves us working with horses, as there is nothing natural about that from the horse's perspective, horses know we aren't horses, and I think we will do better by both the horses and ourselves by being confident and benevolent human leaders. BUT developing an understanding of the horse's nature and the physiological functions of all his parts is not a bad idea. No surprise there, but here's a newsflash: I am considering trying competitive trail in my next phase of horse-ownership. Is that crazy? I love dressage, SO much, but sometimes the idea of camping with my horse and riding through beautiful (and sometimes not beautiful) country just sounds so...liberating! What do you think?